The Proselytizers

Sit down, let me tell you a story.

When I was in the fourth grade, two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the front door of the house my parents had recently bought. This, in and of itself, isn’t at all remarkable. It’s well known that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a branch of Christianity that believes in proselytization (or, as they call it, “witnessing,” hence the name) and they often do it door-to-door. As best as I can recall, it was a middle-aged woman, and a younger woman, both wearing long skirts and vaguely “dressy” attire. This would have been 1994, I think, so please, adjust your mental image accordingly.

It was not odd that they knocked on the door. What was maybe a little odd was the way that my mother answered. And what happened afterwards.

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***

As far as I can tell, this is what happened. My mom grew up in a family that was officially catholic, but the whole family stopped going to church when she was four or five. She wasn’t super into churches, but was sort of vaguely Christian-ish. I won’t attempt to speak to her specific beliefs or lack thereof, because they aren’t mine. But she was, and is, a deeply good person, a person who feels for others, and a person who believes in kindness. And she had heard, like most Americans have, stories about how awful and “weird” and “crazy” Jehovah’s Witnesses were. She’d heard rumors. She’d heard they weren’t real Christians. She’d heard they were a cult. She’d heard they wouldn’t let you celebrate Christmas. But it wasn’t in her nature to believe rumors. So when two showed up on her doorstep, rather than being annoyed, she thought “now here’s an opportunity to find out what’s really going on, straight from the horse’s mouth!”

When they said that they wanted to talk about the Bible, she invited them in, and they sat at our dining room table with glasses of water.

I was nine years old, and I was fascinated.

I had always been deeply interested in religion, but nobody in my life wanted to talk to me about it much. My family didn’t go to church, not even on holidays, and my one close friend who’s family was religious just saw it as something your parents made you do, and was utterly perplexed by my desire to learn more about it. But suddenly, there I was. There were two people in my house who wanted to talk about god. And, they were wearing long skirts.

I’m not exactly sure what happened first, my memory is fuzzy, but before long my mother and I both had a weekly bible study set up. The middle aged woman would come, and she would sit at the dining room with my mother, and they would thumb through the bible and various other books. The younger woman, sometimes alone and sometimes with a woman who was older than her but younger than the lady talking with my mom, would come and sit in the living room with me. My mother listened skeptically and asked lots of questions. I, on the other hand, ate up everything they had to say and asked for a larger spoon.

You see, no one had ever tried to explain that different people believed different things to me. I didn’t know that the world was full of a myriad of different religions, with different traditions, and different reasons for thinking the things that they thought. I only knew that some people went to church and some (like me) didn’t. I knew that some churches were different from each other, some had more or less singing, and some had more or less decorations, but that was really the end of any understanding of the variety of faith on my part.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t go to a church, they went to a Kingdom Hall. I was not allowed to go… yet.

I don’t remember their names, which bothers me, even though this was two decades ago. I also don’t remember how long our weekly bible studies lasted for. I only remember that I looked forward to them. I remember thumbing through my copy of Your Youth, Getting The Best Out Of It looking for answers. I remember nodding solemnly when they explained that obviously evolution was a big lie. I remember when they explained that it was true that they didn’t celebrate birthdays, because they found that celebrating an individual person with gifts on the day that they were born was dangerously close to worshipping them, if not a form of worship outright. I bit my lower lip. I loved my birthday (I still do) and I was obsessed with birthdays (I still am) and I couldn’t imagine the pain of losing it forever, but I also stoically accept that Jehovah God would help me, and one day I would be devout enough not to mind going without it.

Ironically, it was in their effort to teach me The Truth (what they earnestly believed was the whole and absolute truth) that they accidentally introduced me to the idea that different people believed different things just as earnestly, and hey, maybe we couldn’t say for sure which one was right?

To avoid confusion, for the purposes of this conversation, I will name the elder teacher “Linda” and the younger one “Becca.”

Every week, Becca and Linda, or oftentimes just Becca, would sit with me in my parent’s living room. The TV would be off for once. My sister would clear out. In the quiet, we would go through the books and talk about God, who — I had so recently learned — had a name, and that name was Jehovah. Each week, they would ask if there was a particular chapter I was interested in discussing in Your Youth, Getting The Best Out Of It, and each week I would desperately want to asked about the chapter titled “Masturbation and Homosexuality.” Only I was too embarrassed, I was terrified that if I admitted that I was interested in even finding out what was in that chapter, they would get the altogether wrong idea and think that I wanted to be a masturbating homosexual.

So on this one day, I asked instead about the chapter about Armageddon, because frankly, we were running out of other chapters.

And so Becca was explaining what was going to happen at the end (link has nothing to do with JWs, actually), and Linda was nodding with approval. As always, I accepted what Becca told me as fact, because I knew that she cared about me and was a good person and would never ever lie. And then, as I remember it, Becca must have veered slightly off corse. She was explaining how everyone would one day be resurrected, and then added that prior to purging the world of wicked people, Jesus and Jehovah God would allow everyone, even sinners, to live in peace for one thousand years.

(That is what I remember, but I’m not sure how reliable my memory is on that. I’m also not sure what the official doctrine is on the subject, and briefly combing through the Watchtower website hasn’t yielded an answer for me.)

Linda pursed her lips “that is not,” she said, “actually what we believe.”

“Well, I’ve read the bible and it’s what I believe.” Becca half smiled, but things were definitely tense. Linda shook her head.

I was on the couch, more interested in this conversation than I had expected when I randomly picked the topic. Here were these people who I thought could teach me objective truth, and yet they disagreed. “How do I know which one is true?” I remember asking.

Linda, still looking annoyed, said that even people of the same religion sometimes disagreed on certain details, and that we’d see which was right soon enough. She didn’t know how much she had just rocked my world.

***

Within a couple of weeks, they stopped coming to talk to me. Word was that they were asked not to, because my newfound faith was making me “weird” and even “creepy.” I was certain this was exactly the kind of oppression foretold for true believers, I cried, and I kept all of their books. Within a few months though, I stopped looking at them, I felt frankly relieved that I would still be able to celebrate my birthday, and I moved on. I would go through various religious stages as I grew up, but I never called god “Jehovah” again.

But I didn’t forget their kindness.

***

The internet meant that you didn’t have to wait for a religious person to come to your door to get information about faith. It also meant that I could read about various religions from various cultures, and weigh them against each other. I stayed up all night at the age of fifteen comparing religions, I was specifically looking for one that did not condemn homosexuals. I was also specifically looking for one that didn’t proselytize. I settled on Wicca. Later, I would take money that I received for my birthday to the bookstore at the mall, and with a deep breath plunge into the “New Age and Occult” section (terrified that someone would see me) and purchase a copy of Scott Cunningham’s Wicca, A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner.

Just like that, I was a witch.

Christian kids at my suburban High School always had questions for me. I was excited to dispel rumors and to debate our different world views, for the most part. In some ways, growing up had changed me almost beyond recognition, but in others it hadn’t at all. I still, deep down, just really wanted to talk about religion. I found it fascinating and delightful, all of it, and even beliefs that I couldn’t share delighted me when I saw that they brought others happiness.

And I started to hear those rumors that my mother had heard about Jehovah’s Witnesses, that they were a cult, that they were “crazy,” that they were not Christians, that they were dangerous. A Baptist friend insisted that Jehovah’s Witnesses definitely did not read the bible. I was amazed at the amount of misinformation, honestly. And I always defended them. No, I said, they were not a cult, they were certainly Christians because they believed in Jesus, they were just a smaller denomination that fell a little further outside the mainstream. They were certainly homophobic, but no more than many other Christian denominations.

This is getting long.

***

I used to get drunk and read that chapter, “Masturbation and Homosexuality,” at parties. I did it to try to make it funny. I did it to try to make it ridiculous. I did it to try to heal the pain of being thirteen, sneaking down to the basement where the old books were kept, and re-reading that chapter in the dark, wondering if I had ruined myself forever.

I did it because I wanted to believe that Becca and Linda were good and had my best interests at heart, but I also wanted to believe that they were wrong in such an over the top, ridiculous sort of way, that no one would ever take them seriously. I did it because I wanted to make my heart stop hurting for people like Becca and Linda, I wanted to stop wishing that I could, like my mother, welcome them into my home and offer them a tall glass of water.

My mother was straight. I tried my best to be straight. When that failed, I tried my best to be bisexual. When I met my very last boyfriend, I knew I was gay, and so I clung to him like a life raft. When he broke up with me, I knew the illusion was over, and so I wrote my father a letter that said “I’m gay.”

***

Two days ago, I saw what I first mistook for a young, well-dressed, couple walking down my street. The woman was wearing a long-ish purple dress. The man was wearing a crisp purple dress shirt, and an absolutely phenomenal paisley tie that my wife would probably swoon over. They didn’t look like any of the neighbors that I’ve met so far (we’ve been in this house a little under a month). Then it hit me, I knew exactly who they were, they were not a couple at all.

They were both carrying several thin books, and the man was carrying a bible.

I was on the couch in the living room. The baby wasn’t feeling well, and he was breastfeeding and just starting to doze off. His little eyes were closed. My child, my perfect miracle child, my child with two mothers and a sperm donor we refer to as his fairy godmother. His eyes were closed, and then they knocked on the door, and his eyes opened.

Shit.

Before I was married, I used to just lie. When they came with their copies of Watchtower magazine, I would look into their earnest smiling faces, I would think about the courage that it took to walk down the street knowing doors would be slammed in their faces, I would think about how their faith must comfort them and how deeply they must believe in it. And I would lie to them. I would smile, and when they held up the publication, I would say “you know what I actually already have one!” and they would look so surprised and delighted. Like, here they were, doing the really miserable work of proselytizing, but I could make them delighted for just a moment. Sometimes they would look confused for a second, but then I would beam warmly at them, and they would beam warmly at me, and they would say “oh wonderful! well you have a great day, ma’am!” and I would say “you have a great day too, and good luck out there.”

I can’t do it anymore.

***

This isn’t really about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I mean, they are the people I have the most experience with in this one format, and because of that I feel a deep confusion and compassion for them, but this isn’t about their specific faith and it’s specific rules and tenants. This is about the fact that there are people who believe so strongly that they are right that they see it as their duty to tell you that you are wrong. They are not doing it to be mean, they are doing it to help. Their motives are good, and that’s part of why it’s so difficult to deal with the inherent rudeness of their tactics. That’s part of why it’s so utterly heartbreaking to come up against their hatred.

I won’t link to it, but Watchtower Publications recently released a video for the purposes of teaching children about families like mine. In it, a young girl learns that it is her duty to inform a friend with gay parents that her family is wrong, a lie, bad in the sight of god. They are literally telling children that kids like my kid, my kid, ought to hear from their friends that their parents are bad. It fills me with a rage and a sadness that feels so opposite, so separate, from the compassion I feel for the smiling people who come up onto my porch with their books and their good intentions.

Yet, both exist at the same time.

***

I didn’t want to go to the door, but they could see me through the open living room windows. They would knock again, and the baby would start to cry. My wife wasn’t home. I snuggled him up to me and pulled my shirt down over my boobs and went to the door.

I couldn’t lie, I couldn’t lie with my child in my arms, but I was also too tired to tell the truth. So I settled on saying as little as possible.

“Hi,” I said, fighting the urge to apologize, “my baby is sick and I’m trying to get him down for a nap.”

They looked at the baby, really more of a toddler now, snuggling his face into my shoulder, with tenderness. “Oh, we completely understand!” the young man said, for all the world as if he was giving me permission. There was a pause, they were trying to figure out if they should say anything else, if they should offer to leave literature, to come back on a different day.

“Have a nice day.” I said flatly, and I closed the door in their face.

***

I wish I had said more. And then again, I don’t. I’m sure they will be back. If not them, then others like them. They will come, smiling, with literature that tells that one day the world will be pure and virtuous and people like me won’t be allowed.

I wonder what I will say to them then.

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